The hallmark of a well-run franchise is putting players in a position where they are best able to succeed. In that sense, general manager Sam Presti's moves in building the Thunder have been remarkably prescient, patient and well-planned.
Presti got lucky when Kevin Durant fell to him as the no-brainer No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft. But his picks since then, including Russell Westbrook in 2008 and both James Harden and Serge Ibaka in 2009, were either surprising or questioned at the time. Now they seem like wise components of a comprehensive plan.
In that '09 draft, the Thunder passed on Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry, two players who would have interfered with Westbrook's development, in favor of Harden. Presti has taken care not to rush Harden or Ibaka, bringing them along without too much responsibility despite their obvious progress. Then, at last month's trading deadline, Presti made a series of bold moves that solidified his core.
Gone were Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic, two starters and soon-to-be free agents. In exchange, he acquired Kendrick Perkins, a strong interior defender who addresses OKC's most glaring flaw. Presti immediately gave Perkins a long-term contract before the center had even played a minute for the Thunder. With Perkins in the pivot and undersized power forward Green's departure, Presti could move Ibaka into the starting lineup at his natural position. Green's absence also enabled Presti to promote Harden as a sixth man with more playing time and more scoring responsibilities. In the last year and a half, Harden and Ibaka have been groomed for these roles.
Now the Thunder have four solid interior defenders in Perkins, Ibaka, Nick Collison and recently acquired Nazr Mohammed. They have big scorers in Durant and Westbrook and a dynamic sixth man in Harden; all three are especially adept at getting to the free-throw line. Thabo Sefolosha is a shutdown wing defender, Daequan Cook a three-point specialist and Eric Maynor a promising backup point guard. The roster is young and relatively inexpensive, features young (Durant) and older (Perkins) mentors, and has clearly defined roles. As soon as this postseason, the Thunder may be ready to make some noise.
For now, they've won nine of 11 and are up to fifth in this week's Power Rankings.
(All stats and records are through March 21.)
NBA Power Rankings